news NSW electrity grid operator TransGrid has revealed plans to deploy a sizable fleet of Windows 8-based tablets across its operations, as part of a wider comprehensive revamp of its desktop PC infrastructure that will also see the organisation migrate the majority of its desktops to virtualised instances through thin client technology.
Most major Australian organisations have shunned Windows 8-based tablets since the new Microsoft operating system was launched in 2012, with most of the local tablet market still made up of Apple’s iPad devices, plus some devices based on Google’s Android platform. However, signs have started to emerge over the past several months that the Microsoft platform might prove attractive to organisations due to its ease of integration with their existing Microsoft infrastructure.
The biggest deployment known so far of Windows 8 tablets in Australia has been the Queensland Department of Education, which confirmed in early June that it would deploy Windows 8 tablets to some 14,000 secondary school students in the state. Another organisation known to currently be conducting a Windows 8 tablet trial is the Tasmanian police force, which revealed its interest in mid-May.
However, in tender documents released in late June, TransGrid, which operates some 12,600km of electricity cable throughout the state and has some 1,000 staff across New South Wales, revealed that it would be one of the first known Australian organisations to commit to a Windows 8 tablet deployment.
The organisation is currently conducting an effort to replace its aging fleet of 1,500 in-house PCs and laptops. As previewed by CIO in July 2011 (TransGrid was conducting a trial at the time), the organisation is looking to replace most of its desktop fleet with virtual desktop alternatives.
“The incorporation of Desktop Virtual Infrastructure (DVI) is intended to remove the requirement for desktop computers and reduce demand for some other types of computers,” wrote TransGrid in its tender documentation. The organisation has some 489 desktop PCs currently, and 968 laptops, which will also be replaced, but not necessarily with virtual desktop alternatives.
In addition, the document states: “Tablet computers will now be incorporated in the Principal’s list of standard computing devices.” According to TransGrid’s documents, it needs some 20 “standard commercial” tablets and some 260 more “lightweight commercial” tablets, in addition to a further 100 “hardened” tablets — presumably for use in the field.
In general, government agencies tend not to specify precise details of tablets they require during tendering processes. This allows a variety of vendors — from Apple to HP, Dell, ASUS, Acer, Lenovo and others — to supply responses based on their own models, which tend to differ substantially in terms of their technical specifications.
However, in its documents, TransGrid specified that its tablets must be able to run Windows 8 Pro (x64 edition) and come with an Intel Core i5 or i7 or Intel Atom ARM processor, as well as a minimum of 2GB of RAM, an Intel HD Graphics 4000 graphics card, 1920×1080 resolution, a 64GB solid state hard drive, and 3G/4G capability. In addition, the organisation specified that the tablets must come with a USB 3.0 or microUSB 3.0 port, as well as a cradle/docking station which offers further capabilities including a Gigabit Ethernet port.
The specifications clearly rule out the dominant iPad and Android tablet devices available in Australia, which currently represent the vast majority of the Australian tablet market, limiting TransGrid’s procurement to Windows 8 devices, with specifications similar to traditional laptops.
TransGrid is sticking with Windows 7 for its desktop and laptop machines, choosing to avoid upgrading to Windows 8 on those traditional devices. It plans to contract suppliers over the next several months and take delivery of its new machines in September and October.
This is a very interesting request for tender document from TransGrid.
Firstly, it’s interesting, but not unexpected, that TransGrid is shifting to virtual desktop infrastructure for its desktop PCs, and moving predominantly to lightweight laptops in its laptop fleet. This is increasingly the way that major corporations and government departments are going; the virtual desktops are easier to manage centrally, and lightweight laptops are usually more than capable enough these days to handle processing loads which previously ran on heavier, more powerful machines.
Secondly, I find it absolutely fascinating, and perhaps a little worrying, that TransGrid has decided to specifically deploy Windows 8-based tablets in its tablet fleet. What we see here is clearly an attempt by the organisation to do precisely what Microsoft wants major organisations to do with Windows 8 — replace some of their laptop and/or desktop fleet with dockable Windows 8-based devices which can function as tablets and laptops/desktop machines, based on what the user needs at any particular moment.
The rationale here for TransGrid is pretty clear. The organisation’s legacy applications probably would require some retrofitting to run on the modern iOS or Android platforms, so even though those platforms are much more popular in the tablet market than Windows 8, the organisation has gone with what it knows, specifying the full version of Windows 8 for its tablets that will be able to run both traditional desktop applications with no compatibility issues, as well as access web-based applications on the road through a nice touchscreen interface.
Plus, there is the ancillary benefit that Windows 8 is easy to manage centrally through the bolt-on applications (think System Center Configuration Manager) which Microsoft added to Windows Server in the Windows 7 era and has continually upgraded since.
However, not only has TransGrid drastically limited the competition in its tender process here (never a good look for a government-owned organisation) but personally, I can’t help but think that overall, the organisation might have missed a long-term opportunity.
Let’s put it bluntly: Windows 8 makes a lot of sense on paper to an IT manager, but when it comes to using it in practice, people are universally confused by it at this point, even those who have been using Windows variants for decades. Microsoft’s ‘half-in, half-out’ approach with Windows 8 has alienated a large majority of its user base, as it did with Windows Vista previously, leading to a situation where most people prefer to use an iPad or Android device as their main tablet, even if they do use Windows on the desktop.
It might have proven very difficult for TransGrid to bring legacy applications to a state where they could be delivered through a web browser or natively on iOS or Android. But there is probably no doubt that in the long-term, say in the next decade, it will be forced down this route eventually. Desktop applications are gradually going the way of the dinosaur in corporate Australia, as cloud computing takes root and everything starts to be delivered through a web browser. Every Australian organisation — including TransGrid — will need to face this reality eventually. And it’s not just tablets which these apps will need to be delivered through. Smartphones, also, are a target platform for corporate apps, and Microsoft’s compatibility credentials are nowhere near as strong in this space as they are on the desktop.
What TransGrid’s is delivering to its users with its Windows 8 tablet rollout, coupled with a Windows 7 (often virtual) desktop rollout, will no doubt feel very right to its IT management right now. But I suspect that it will feel subtly wrong to many of its users, who have become accustomed to a desktop/tablet separation at home based around iOS on the tablet, and who, in any case, would probably in many cases also like to see integration between their corporate apps and their dominant daily computing platform — their smartphone.
What we’re seeing here from TransGrid is a very good, by the book, medium-term IT end user computing strategy. I approve of it. It’s solid, it’s based on technology from vendors which is proven, and it’ll get the organisation through the next few years — perhaps even the next half-decade. But I can’t help but feel that there’s a deeper missed opportunity here for a long-term transformation that would deliver much greater flexibility and productivity gains. Perhaps that’s happening in the background. We can only hope.
Image credit: Dell